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Plants Bring Us the Mountains

This article was first published on 19 Dec 2016.

Alpine garden

Alpine garden

Photo by the Otago Daily Times

What does a native alpine flower in the garden conjur up in your imagination? I think of tarns and tawny tussocks, parkas and packs, the trickle of snowmelt travelling through tributaries just beneath ground level.

New Zealand native alpines may not rival the vibrance of colourful, exotic flowers, but they can tell us many stories about our antipodean mountain landscapes.

Nearly all our native alpine plants grow naturally only in New Zealand. Isolated for millions of years with their heads in the clouds, these plants have developed wonderful adaptations to their extreme environments.

We have the world’s largest buttercup, carrots with fearsome spines, plants that are root parasites, daisies sporting woolly coats, cushion-formers, carnivores, ‘vegetable sheep’ and plants that look like piles of sticks.

Perhaps native alpines are an acquired taste, reserved for those gardeners who enjoy the challenge of growing tricky species, or who hunger for the hills and want a memento in their front yard.

If you are looking for sensuous colour and flouncy flowers, stick with your peonies and poppies.

However, it can be fun to attempt a striking display of New Zealand alpine flowers, creating a miniature impression of an alpine meadow in the height of its flowering.

Many of these rather fussy plants can be short-lived in the garden and are usually available only from specialist nurseries.  So if you don’t have the patience to coddle them or are not in the mood to walk up a mountain visit Dunedin Botanic Garden’s native plant collection to enjoy some examples.

Kate Caldwell is curator of the NZ native plant collection at Dunedin Botanic Garden.